Sense prevails at Stonehenge, again
It was good yesterday to see Arthur Pendragon’s request for a judicial review about the Stonehenge burials thrown out, though not a surprise. His complaint was that he had not been consulted over the decision to grant an extension on the licence to examine the cremated remains we excavated in 2008. We were originally given two years to study these before their reburial (or, as the self-styled Battlechieftain put it, to “conduct experiments upon ancestral human remains”), and last year we were given a further five years.
Arthur’s a good speaker, and with his robes and beard makes a good interviewee. He is a colourful sideshow for the media, and for visitors to Stonehenge where he has been staging a protest for many years. But he has wasted a great deal of archaeologists’ time over this issue (which can be translated into taxpayers’ money in many cases), where there should never really be any question about what is the right thing to do. There is often more to his words than appear on the surface.
In an interview outside the High Court yesterday, Arthur said, “It’s come to our attention that all the authorities have been colluding behind the scenes to make it virtually impossible for the cremated human remains… to ever go back to Stonehenge”. (You can see another BBC report here, with a brief comment from me.)
This is not a fair description of reality. Along with some other Pagans, Arthur has had special access to behind the scenes discussions at Stonehenge, overseen by English Heritage, for several years. In correspondence with the Ministry of Justice last year, he was told that “it is proposed that once the work has been completed the religious views of the Pagans and Druids will be respected and the remains reinterred” (email from Rupert Clayton, Coroners And Burials Division Ministry of Justice, to Arthur Pendragon November 2 2010). This was a position taken by the MoJ that we were not told about (the email came to light in Arthur’s evidence to court). It is a nonsense for Arthur to talk about his being excluded by a “collusion”.
Sadly, history tell us not to expect Arthur to drop the issue now that his request for a judicial review has been rejected. He will move the goalposts and pick up a different ball, and waste more of our time.
This is the basic story of these precious Stonehenge cremations.
1. They were originally excavated by William Hawley, mostly in the 1920s, found unexpectedly in an arc at the edge of the site close to the encircling bank and ditch. We can not know precisely what he found, as the records are not that good, but we think there were around 50 burials.
2. At the time, no archaeologists or scientists took much interest in the remains, and no museum could be persuaded to preserve them. In desperation, Robert Newall reburied them in 1935 in Aubrey Hole 7
3. In Hengeworld, I estimated that the total number of people buried at Stonehenge may be around 240. There are very likely to be many more cremation burials at Stonehenge, still in the ground
4. In 2008, as part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards and I re-excavated Aubrey Hole 7 and recovered the remains it held. Today we can learn a great deal from their study, and thereby bring these burials and the people they represent into the proper story of Stonehenge. They had hitherto been seen as almost irrelevant, and for long were assumed to have occurred at a time when there were few or no stones on the site
5. Mike was granted a licence to excavate the remains, with a condition to rebury them within two years. This was in line with a policy that the Ministry of Justice adopted in 2008, following a re-interpretation of the Burial Act 1857
6. In 2010 the ministry granted a further five years for the study of the remains
7. In the meantime, following a public campaign by archaeologists that I have written about elsewhere on this blog, the ministry revised its approach to licensing. New licenses now allow for the option of retaining archaeological human remains indefinitely. So while it is strictly correct, as the press reported yesterday, that the Stonehenge cremation burials are to be reburied in a few years’ time, we have every right to expect that in fact the license will be changed to allow for permanent retention – which of course is what we believe strongly should happen.
And just as I posted the above, I heard the excellent news that our position is supported by the British Humanist Association.